In 2004, James Wan and Leigh Whannell entered into the mainstream horror scene with the theatrical release of Saw. Beholden to a slick aesthetic that tends to fall back on shock value—specifically explicit scenes of torture and gore—the film went on to launch a franchise that largely shaped a 2000s era preoccupation with torture porn.
Starting with Saw II in 2005, writer and director Darren Lynn Bousman helped to reshape Wan and Whannell’s singular vision into an easily replicated narrative format. Thematically dependent upon actor Tobin Bell’s star-making performance as iconic serial killer-cum-vigilante John “Jigsaw” Kramer, the films that followed Wan’s directorial debut were released once a year through 2010 to diminishing rewards.
Whatever lessons Bousman learned from Wan and Whannel were largely superseded by a perceived desire for prurient depravity—see such contemporary splatter films as Hostel in 2005 and The Human Centipede in 2010—leading the franchise into an admittedly convoluted trajectory. And with the release of Jigsaw some 13 years later, we felt it would be a more than appropriate time to have a discussion between two of our esteemed staff writers about the legacy and cultural significance of the contemporary horror franchise in 2017.
David Hart (DH): The first film in the series, Saw, is the best of the bunch, and it’s not even close. This film, in many ways, is unexpected in the horror genre. It is focused on two people, their struggles, and the ways that they are connected, regardless of their awareness. It introduces the difficult choices that Jigsaw poses. Is one mistake worth punishment? How much do you want to live? How much can you endure? It is clearly a first film and some of the seams show, but damn does it just work! Despite its short runtime, there is a fair amount of fat to trim, but the excess is paced well and gets us back to the important duo. Saw created a memorable villain and people to care about.
Sean K. Cureton (SC): I second that assessment. Saw is dependent on psychological terror first and foremost. Unlike the six films that would follow, the first film in the franchise understands the immediacy of the drama held between two characters trapped inside of a room with one another. Cary Elwes really helps when it comes to bringing some gravitas to the proceedings, and supporting turns from Danny Glover and Lost star Michael Emerson really help to round out what was initially conceived and produced as a nine minute short film.
DH: Saw II is an uneven sequel, but provides a character in Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) that we are immediately connected to. He and Jigsaw are worthy adversaries. Although the hook of the film, that of the connected victims, is blatantly predictable, most of the action and gore still function well enough for a sequel.
SC: And probably more so than either of the two films that would immediately follow it. Saw II really feels like the most like-minded continuation from Whannell’s original script for Saw. While Bousman largely dispenses with much of the first movie’s ties to psychological terror, Saw II repackaged everything that Wan brought into cinematic fruition into an easily digestible template that could be serialized as long as general viewers remained interested.
DH: Saw III is where we lose all semblance of logic and control. Unfortunately, and thanks to a diagnosis of brain cancer, this franchise is written into a corner from the beginning. Because of this, a plot to kidnap a brain surgeon is employed to disgusting ends. Saw III is chock full of disposable characters and yawn-inducing action. Unlike previous films, there is not a drop of suspense.
SC: The really sad thing is I almost love Saw III more than any of the others. There is a slow-paced exploration of the characters that could have worked if Bousman had actually trusted his audience to go along for a ride that wasn’t dependent on some of the most depraved Jigsaw traps that the series has to offer. For my money, it’s not nearly as bad as some of the films that were soon to follow, but from a populist perspective, Saw III is a clear front-runner for the worst installment in the franchise.
DH: Saw IV further stretches the believability of Jigsaw’s plans by involving a cassette inside of his dead body. This is a clear desire of the film to involve Jigsaw, even after his death. It also introduces two gigantic negatives to the franchise. One is the character of Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who unlike Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Jigsaw (Bell), is not a likeable character in the least. Secondly, the film jerks the audience around by “tricking” us with its use of time. If nothing we see is something we can trust, why am I bothering?
SC: The weird subversion of what had been presented as a chronological narrative structure is definitely the worst innovation that co-writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan introduced to the franchise with the release of Saw IV in 2007. As a result, the succeeding three installments would see Wan and Whannell’s original creation fall in upon itself at the behest of a studio eager to continue milking every last penny out of what was perceived as the cash cow horror franchise of the 2000s.
DH: Saw V focused even more on Hoffman (Mandylor), which bored me to tears. This movie is more of a police procedural than a Saw movie. Sure there are traps and gore, but this franchise rings a bit hollow with Hoffman at the center. As a fun note, it does feature Scott Patterson of Gilmore Girls fame, and he offers the only memorable moment, performing surgery on himself to survive an ingenious water based trap.
SC: Saw V is easily the most forgettable entry in the series. Beyond the water trap, I really don’t remember a whole lot about Saw V, which is perhaps the most definitive thing that could be said about it in regards to what is well-remembered as a viscerally impactful sequence of popular horror films.
DH: Saw VI, for some godforsaken reason, continues to follow Hoffman (Mandylor) on his journey to becoming the Jigsaw killer. However, it does have some interesting things to say about society. And it does finally offer some really difficult choices for the victim, ones he will have to live with forever. It also details more of the original Jigsaw’s life which is, well, tedious. None of this detail is necessary, but hey, it gets us away from Hoffman for a bit, so I guess there’s that.
SC: I could almost see saying Saw VI is my favorite of the Saw sequels, if it weren’t for how mean-spirited some of the traps begin to feel as the movie chugs along. Making a bogeyman out of the American healthcare industry is an easy strawman that returning co-writers Melton and Dunstan set in Hoffman’s path, and seeing Jigsaw’s carefully laid plans brought to bear upon an objectively deserving victim is a treat. But then the actual death tally starts to mount, and all of the air is let out of the room as the blood begins spilling, and the final death is rendered less as a worthwhile reward and more a of a sick revenge fantasy that shouldn’t be indulged even as pure fantasy. The movie rewards the baser impulses of its viewer and it suffers for it. That being said, Saw VI is easily the better of the three films made without Bousman’s involvement.
DH: And finally, we reach Saw 3D, the not so final chapter. There’s no other way to say it: this is a bad movie. And that saddens me, because there is a great idea buried underneath the nonsense. I was excited for the return of Cary Elwes, and the idea of a false Jigsaw victim trying to make money off of other’s suffering. This movie brings us characters to care about, but decides that it is more important to go for the gore and dispatch with all its characters before we are truly connected to them. Saw 3D is a slog that leaves you feeling empty and hollow.
SC: I still can’t decide if I hate Saw 3D or Saw III more, but I think it is more than fair to say that Saw 3D is the real low point for the series from a commercial standpoint. After suffering diminishing returns at the box office following the release of Saw VI in 2009, Saw 3D combined the scripts for a planned Saw VII and Saw VIII into a boring eyesore that was shot in 3D to rake in a few extra bucks from the series’ most faithful viewers. To make matters worse, it kills off Jigsaw’s widow, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), who was easily the most sympathetic character to come out of the franchise post-Saw III.
DH: Although James Wan has been involved after the original film, his influence essentially disappeared. The subtlety of the original was replaced by a different kind of film completely. Darren Lynn Bousman truly shaped what the Saw franchise is known for, for better or worse. Gone are characters that inspire empathy and are replaced by meat shields to be placed into traps and disposed of ceremoniously. Instead of focusing on the horrible decisions our two protagonists face in the room from the original, scenes such as the reverse bear trap took center stage. Of course, there will always be a place for over the top gore and characters that serve as fodder. Horror franchises have proved that there is money to be made in this arena. But this is probably why many of the movies in this franchise blend together after the original.
SC: Bousman’s influence in shaping the franchise starting with Saw II in 2005 is certainly nothing to be surprised about, yet his influence—which was echoed and picked up by such noteworthy contemporaries as Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Tom Six—is deserving of some admonishment. The shallow depths of depravity that the franchise is so well known for ushered in a decade of popular horror movies that catered to shock value over all else. From Hostel to The Human Centipede, Bousman and others made a monetary and symbolic killing by divorcing horror from terror.
DH: Another staple of horror franchises that go on too long is a sense of self-awareness. This is extremely tricky. How do you be self aware about horror and be frightening? I would argue that self-awareness is a death knell for truly terrifying filmmaking. The obvious example is the Friday the 13th franchise, particularly in films like Jason X. This film, much like Saw 3D, seems to have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. In my viewing experience, even when they are enjoyable, unlike Saw VII, there is a certain comfortability to slide into. We know the beats, we know who will live and die. The only advantage Saw has is that we probably don’t know exactly how they will perish. Aside from that surprise, there is a certain eye-rolling predictability to the whole affair.
SC: And yet other horror franchises have managed to reinvigorate interest by falling back on comedy and satire when a centralizing premise grows stale. In particular, Child’s Play started as a conventional horror film in 1988, before turning to self-aware parody and social satire with the releases of Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky in 1998 and 2004. Comparatively, the Saw franchise never really stops to take stock of the various tropes and stereotypes that it set up for itself and subsequently became identifiably tied to. Saw 3D definitely pokes fun at some of the loose moral superiority sporadically enjoyed by Jigsaw (Bell)—in addition to commenting on the compromised nature of those who have survived any one of the series’ grisly and barbaric sequences of torture porn—but never long enough to really feel like anyone involved is willing to actually tell a joke at their own expense.
DH: In the sequels, a recurring theme is the battle between Jigsaw’s disciples, Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). At first, we are only introduced to Amanda, a Jigsaw survivor from Saw. In later films, the story of Hoffman is shoehorned into a pre-existing history. To put it bluntly, Hoffman is a mistake. In my mind, the Saw franchise is at its best when the people have reasons to do what they do beyond fear of repercussion. Amanda is a mostly rewarding character because she is the embodiment of Jigsaw’s work. She was a complete mess before her first interaction with him and turned her life around after meeting him. In becoming Jigsaw’s disciple, her moral standing is ambiguous at best, but she is doing difficult work in her own life. Hoffman, on the other hand, seems more of a character out for himself, as opposed to a true believer. This puts them at odds easily, but is not rewarding for me. If they were both flawed and interesting characters, then their interactions would be much more interesting. Sadly, Hoffman is more of a mustache twirling villain than a real person.
SC: Hoffman easily makes Saw IV and Saw V the most lack-luster entries in the series for me. Whereas Saw III tried to raise the stakes for a fitting conclusion to an original trilogy centering around the final days and work of Jigsaw (Bell), the two films that followed did a lot of bait-and-switch maneuvering that feel outright resentful of the viewer. By continuing to dig through the dirty laundry left behind by Jigsaw following his onscreen death in Saw III, the series starts to go downhill when his proteges take center stage. But while Amanda’s inescapable traps from Saw III karmically warrant her character’s demise, the fact that Hoffman continues to dole out death sentences for the remainder of the franchise rings a little hollow considering how patently selfish he proves himself to be throughout.
DH: Nevertheless, Tobin Bell is the sometimes beating heart of this franchise. Even after his own death, they cannot help but return to his story. In later films, there is an obvious effort to hand over the keys to the disciples of his work. Unfortunately, none of them match Bell’s performance level. It is not just his voice, although that helps drive the terror of his victims through recorded messages. Despite his violence, there is a sense of pity and hope for these broken people behind his eyes. Acting prowess may not be focused upon in many horror franchises, and the same is true here. But Bell, in increasingly ridiculous films, delivers solid-to-good performances repeatedly. This, and not convoluted plot machinations, is why he returns, time and time again.
SC: The really interesting aspect to Bell’s involvement in the franchise is how he doesn’t become an central protagonist until Saw II. In Saw, Jigsaw’s voice is relegated to the cassette tapes hidden in the room that Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell find themselves trapped within. But after he reveals himself to have been the seemingly dead body in the iconic room from the original movie, Bell quickly starts chewing the scenery in each and every installment that follows. And with the release of Jigsaw, it’s more apparent than ever that Bell is still a major driving force to keep the ball rolling.
DH: I don’t think that it is a controversial statement to say that after the first film there is a precipitous drop in quality. A more interesting question is, besides the first film, which of these work as a movie? To me, there are really only two options: Saw II and Saw VI. Saw II is the only film that tries to walk in the footsteps of Saw. But, on the other hand, it reeks of sequel culture. That is, it feels like a very similar movie, save for being bigger, louder, and bloodier. It still works as a movie, but it doesn’t seem to be traversing any new ground. On the other hand, Saw VI tries really hard. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, and it makes an attempt to make some social commentary. But even by horror standards, its social commentary is not in the least bit subtle. It’s indictment of the health care system in the United States is worn on its sleeve. However, it is still quite effective and forces us to ponder the part we play within the various machines we are a part of in our daily lives. These, to my mind, are the only two sequels that work. Saw II is a better movie, but Saw VI makes a real attempt to do something different with a floundering franchise.
SC: If Saw II is the better movie, which I am more than willing to concede, than you might describe Saw VI as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 of the Saw franchise. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Saw VI strives to innovate while holding fast to a formula that has gone sour. But as I’ve said before, the Saw franchise is unwilling to tell a joke at its own expense, and as a result Saw VI quickly takes on the tone of fascistic vigilante justice. Thankfully, Saw II paves the way for its victims to take their own lives as a result of their own hubris, making it the only sequel to follow in the same thematic tradition as the original Saw, and the only good followup in a string of tiresome studio genre productions.
DH: All that being said, expectations are mixed for Jigsaw, the latest sort of sequel in the Saw universe. On one hand, weren’t we told that the last film was “The Final Chapter?” And what story is there left to tell? Is there possibly any more background that can be stuffed in this franchise that is bursting at the seams? But then there’s the other side. We get to see Tobin Bell one more time. And the choice of the Spierig Brothers to direct is certainly intriguing. These are directors who got their start in the horror genre and are returning after a successful foray into science fiction with the release of Predestination in 2014. It is possible that they can breathe new life into Jigsaw and make this fun and exciting again, something that has been missing for years.
SC: The biggest question I have is whether anyone really cares about the Saw franchise anymore—especially after Saw 3D clumsily put an end to the entire shebang—and whether anyone even should care to begin with. The extent to which later entries in the series sullied the legacy of the original film has me dreading to read the box office numbers for Jigsaw over the course of the next couple of weeks. I don’t think there is anything novel to be extricated from a corpse that’s already been reconfigured into six Frankenstein’s monsters thus far, but I do have to admit I’m intrigued to see which appendage Bell will play in the latest unholy behemoth.
Featured Image: Lionsgate Films